Although written in extremely different circumstances between 2017 and 2019, Sam Fender’s debut album feels as if it was perfectly written for the toughest year that many of us have ever – and hopefully, will ever – face. I could have written a retrospective review of ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ – next week marks one week since it first came into the world – but that didn’t seem to feel right for an album which has helped me through the strangest summer of all.
I’ve been listening to parts of the album for as long as I can remember. Fender released ‘Play God’, a track on his Dead Boys EP, back in 2017, and it’s been on my radar for about two years (I can’t completely remember). Admittedly, I started playing it because it sounded good, with it’s walking-tempo beat and almost nostalgic guitar sound. Meaning wise, it details a dystopian future with a dictator sitting, running at the top of the country, doing what he wants – and everyone sleepwalking around, accepting it. This song pre-dates Boris Johnson’s premiership – but with his woeful and self-serving approach to dealing with the virus situation, along with just about everything else he does, it seems very prescient. Those with a voice aren’t focussed on him – they think by doing things such as calling for awareness of other world problems in different countries that they are making a difference. Really, it’s little more than deflecting from the powerlessness they feel about what’s going on at home. It seems to be a thinly veiled dig at Brexit – which he mentions in ‘White Privilege’ – but could also mirror the despair that millions of people have felt under the Conservative leadership in the UK over the past decade. Sorry to get political – but this album is a political statement. Reference to ‘sewer rats in the underground’ seems to pour scorn on the bankers, famous journalists and everyone else who are the ‘liberal elite’ of the country, and the focus of everything being on London. The rest of the UK is neglected by those in power, through funding, policies, and parts are only ever cared about during election time, where their experiences are given lip service, reduced to phrases such as the ‘Red Wall’, and given thin promises which are never delivered on, whoever is in charge.
These are themes also touched upon by ‘White Privilege’, which has obviously been on everyone’s lips for the past few months. It seems heavier than normal. The killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, along with far too many other African-Americans – and people of colour worldwide – didn’t only bring a resurgance to the Black Lives Matter movement in a way which hadn’t previously been seen (English football players are still taking the knee before each game to this day), but it came at the first point where my generation were able to make a visible difference. It’s not hard to see why Generation Z are angry with everything – we have every right to be. And through working with more seasoned protestors who were involved in anti-capitalist and anti-racist movements in the late 2000s, along with harnessing the enormous grip we have on social media, we were able to make a BLM and anti-racist wave across the world. This despite being faced with a global pandemic and knowing that we would be blamed by the right-wing press for any rise in cases in the weeks following.
‘White Privilege’ looks at the perspective of a young white male in modern society. The outro speaks of the evil ancestry which we have – again, bought into 2020 through events such as the Causton Statue being pushed into the Bristol Channel. The ‘evil is still not gone’ refers to the racism and pure hatred which is spouted by (mainly) white men in the media – just look at the figures in the US of the Republicans and Fox News, or at many of those on UK outlets such as LBC, or those who were the public embodiment of Brexit. Indeed, he directly calls out the exit process, by saying “them old c***s fucked up our exit”. He’s more sympathetic, understandably, by people who read the media and are almost brainwashed into being scared of people who don’t look the same as them. All you need to look at for that is the characterisation of Muslims as terrorists that the press embarked on in the mid and late 2010s following ISIS. Since 2016 also, there’s been a tendency from (I’m going to use a phrase which seems to exist purely on twitter here, with good reason) metropolitan ‘centrists’ to take their frustration out on people in the North, in particular the North East (where Fender is from), calling them stupid and gloating that they aren’t going to get what they expected from supporting Brexit. It’s very easy for people attached to their phones all day who had the opportunity for good education (well-funded at least) and are affluent enough to be able to ponder the big questions of the day, while forgetting that millions of people, especially not in the South East, won’t have had those life experiences and are unable to spend time thinking about philosophical questions. They will see 5 or 6 headlines a day saying “[INSERT ANY MINORITY GROUP / NON-RIGHT-WING POLITICIAN OR MOVEMENT] IS BAD, EVIL, A TRAITOR” and what are they meant to think? And a lot of people will have lived through the last few decades – through the neglect of the North since the days of Thatcher- , and their quality of life isn’t really high, and they’re not happy. No wonder people voted for Brexit – any chance of a change which could make their lives better (which they were told would make them better) to them, is worth going for. As Fender says himself, liars from each side of the fence left a lot of people without anyone representing THEM – purely, they were used to gain votes for politicians who want not to make a positive change to the world, but to make a positive change to their social status and bank balance.
It also refers to people signing petitions online, thinking that they’re making a real difference to the world by pressing a button. We’ve all seen the endless petitions surrounding BLM in the last few months – and yes, some, such as those pressing for the prosecution of George Floyd’s killers, have made an impact – it’s all turned performative, and mainly by the people who it doesn’t effect – those with white privilege. There’s now a trend on twitter for a user who’s made a viral tweet to reply to said tweet with a thread of petitions which people should be signing for awareness. People have boasted how many they’ve signed – “I’ve signed 100 today” is a genuine example I’ve seen used in an argument – and I don’t know if half of this is due to pressure from society, being perceived as racist if they don’t do SOMETHING. Well, I’m going to make a confession here. I’ve signed 1 (one) entire petition this year. And that was the direct one to get justice for the killers of George Floyd. Signing petitions to do the vast majority of things is utterly pointless in my view, and people who have my social media profiles have seen me be very quiet on this issue. I would rather read about the issues, educate myself, and share donation links for those in need of help (there is a crossover with BLM, don’t misinterpret me – some of the threads I mentioned have links to donate money which I have promoted) rather than share posts on my instagram story about things which I have only just learned myself and don’t fully understand. The black square on Instagram was peak social performatism for me – I didn’t post a blank one, but included a message and links to things that actually help – it was people saving an image of a black box and posting it in “solidarity”. I really hope that everyone who did that felt like they achieved something. It was the equivalent of clapping for the NHS while refusing to speak out against the people who’ve bought it to their knees. Indeed, uses of certain hashtags even prevented protestors from getting important help. Share information, go to protests, do whatever you can – I agree with that – but useless things like a black box which promote nothing but your own ego….
‘Dead Boys’ is the hardest hitting song I’ve possibly ever heard – because it touches on a societal issue which is so present, so overlooked, and very close to me. It deals with male suicide and perhaps its biggest cause – the fact that toxic masculinity in society, perpetuated by stereotypes and social media – stops men getting dark thoughts out of their mind and in the end the weight of those thoughts consume them. There’s a push in the media to get people talking, which has been long-needed, and through high-profile awareness movements such as Coronation Street’s story surrounding character Aidan Connor’s death, the stigma around male mental health is finally starting to be challenged. The song approaches it from the survivors – ‘no-one ever could explain’ – who never knew just how low he was until it was too late. I believe that Fender wrote the song after a male friend of his committed suicide. It can be impossible to see the signs that someone is really struggling as they are often extremely good at covering it up – but all anyone can really do is make sure that they are there for them. I say that as someone who has been on both sides of that.
“I remember specifically for me as a kid growing up or as a young teenager if I ever cried or got upset in front of anybody, I would be so humiliated. I’d be so angry with myself for being upset and then it would just become this catch 22 situation. It’s that attitude that stops men from talking and stops men from being like able to turn to each other. Me and my mates are very, very close. We all talk about our problems – especially as we’ve got older. But I don’t think a lot of people have that. Men just need to be open and not emasculate one another.”Sam Fender, in an interview to NME (October 2018).
Like everyone else, I also love the songs based on their musical qualities. The songwriting on ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ deserves awards and is a rare 10/10 for me. It blends indie rock with older influences, e.g. from Britpop (especially on ‘That Sound’). Personally, ‘Call Me Lover’ is my favourite on the album, although I’m aware that Fender himself has almost distanced himself from it. I don’t know why it makes me feel the way it does – I think I just personally relate to the protagonist in his want for affection from people, but perhaps seeks for it from people who don’t really give it back to him in a way which is healthy or even wanted. The loneliness which I’ve often felt in the last few months (and memories from how I felt a few years ago) probably evokes that of the boy in the song – seeing everyone else happy and then comparing that to his own life situation. Just listening to the song makes me go cold – and although it is definitely one of the lighter tracks on the album, it makes me sad in a way which the others often don’t, but sad in a way where I will ponder life listening to it on loop for half an hour. It might sound ridiculous, but this song has also driven me to take some important steps in my own life and has clarified certain things which have been going on in my mind.
Music means different things to everyone, but to me, this album is an example of just how powerful it can be. It took me a long time to listen to it in full, but if I had forced myself to listen to it before it wouldn’t have made me read so much into both it and my own life. For the moment, at the very least, this is my favourite album, and I don’t think it will ever leave the place it has in my heart.